Mistaken about Fats

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Some of the most negative and unfounded criticisms of food single out animal fats and, by inference, all products that contain them. Such criticisms typically make vague reference to heart disease, cancer, or both, and they are often repeated by nutritionists and health care specialists writing for syndicated columns that are read by thousands of people. Such communications are a disservice to readers for several reasons.

First, one gets the impression from such anti-fat articles that vegetable fats and oils because they usually are not mentioned play no part in the aforementioned diseases. This is not true. The pro-vegetable implication is often amplified by an accompanying strong endorsement of eating fruits and vegetables sound advice taken by itself, but misleading in this context.

Second, even lumping all animal fats together is a mistake. The common edible animal fats include those of cattle, sheep, pigs, poultry, fish, milk, and eggs. Not only are there large compositional variations between those fats, there are important differences in fat content depending on what the individual animal was fed.

Many of the foods we consume are highly processed and contain mixtures of fats. Such foods, particularly vegetable oils, may have had their compositions altered by hydrogenation or fractionations of one kind or another. There is a wealth of new knowledge emerging about the healthfulness of individual fatty acids that make up both animal and vegetable fats and oils. In light of this detailed information, common generalizations such as "the evidence linking animal fats to..." are simply inappropriate and misleading.

Note also that there is always the potential for misleading generalizations in vague statements about "evidence that links..." How much of what kind of evidence, we should ask? Linked how, and to what degree (by what cause and with what effect?)? And linked to how many people, in a total sample of what size and kind?

Those of us who communicate with the public about health matters shouldn't simplify our writing about foods to the point that the truth vanishes especially not in the interest of underscoring some vague scare statement. Many people are getting along just fine with reasonable amounts of the various animal fats in their diets, and we do a disservice by frightening them.

Stuart Patton, Ph.D., is a professor emeritus of food science from Pennsylvania State University and an ACSH Advisor.


September 30, 2002

I'm sure this article is both well intentioned and very probably correct, but it barely dips into the subject. If individual fatty acids are important, which ones are they (apart from omega 3 long-chain fatty acids, which always seem to get good press)? What quantities should we take?

Fat is not the only nutritional subject that suffers from incomplete or vague recommendations. For instance, we're constantly being told in popular literature that we should eat at least five servings of fruits and vegetables a day. Not once has anyone ever specified in any article I've read about nutrition what constitutes a single serving. How many ounces do I have to eat to get five servings? Are serving sizes for the wide variety of fruits and vegetables all the same? Is a "serving" of broccoli the same as a medium-sized banana? What does it all mean?

On the subject of fats, there is wild variation in recommendations, from the 10% limit of Dr Dean Ornish to the all-you-can-eat approach of Atkins. Then there are proponents of specific kinds of fats. The so-called Mediterranean approach encourages you to eat monounsaturates, while the advertising industry is still by and large pushing the polyunsaturates (despite the fact that many of them have been hydrogenated).

In any event, if the tenets of evolutionary psychology and homeostasis are correct, we not only have an unstoppable desire for high energy foods (inherited from a developmental past in which famine was a constant threat) but a set weight at which each person feels balanced and which your body will always try to maintain no matter how you try to compensate by cutting back on energy-dense foods like fats and sugars.

I have come to the personal conclusion that trying to make sense of the dietary maze we call nutrition is a loser's game, even if you accept the idea that caloric restriction with optimal nutrition could actually extend the present limits of our lifespan. Until we completely understand the reasons for and the mechanisms of appetite, solving the obesity epidemic whether by cutting back on fats, sugars, or just calories is a tragic waste of time that has aggravated the overall problem. One thing I do believe is that the sooner we discard the idea that overeating is caused by simple greed, the closer we will come to a solution for the addictive cravings many people feel for fatty foods of all types.

Catherine Osborn

October 15, 2002

I, too, get sick of the total negative press on fats. I really get upset with the negativity regarding eating eggs. There are numerous old, geriatric, ill patients/residents of nursing homes and hospitals who would benefit from eating eggs. I would like to know where we reach the point of diminishing returns in efforts to lower cholesterol levels in the elderly. I see cholesterol levels below 100 at times.

I see demented elderly who are receiving cholesterol-lowering medication. Wouldn't it make more sense to let these people eat whatever they want and can eat?

G. Beck, R.D.

Editor's note: Read ACSH's report on the benefits of eggs.